Monday, January 17, 2011

Speaking in tongues - variations on a theme

A few weeks ago I was indiscreet. Presumptuous, even. Despite my semi-literate status, I ventured to criticise some aspects of formal education. And paid the price. My learned friends squashed me in no uncertain terms. They dismissed my criticism as no more than petulance at a system I had failed to master. No doubt they are right, and there is a deeper truth than I can comprehend to the practice of studying statistics for the purpose of not making causal correlations. But back in the day when I was struggling ineffectually to understand the mysteries of calculus, it struck me that even mathematics actually requires you to learn a new language. Before you can start applying numbers to advanced maths, you have to acquire a new vocabulary that incorporates bits of Latin, Greeek and sundry parts of the English alphabet.

This was something I realised from my helpless struggles with trigonometry in school. In fact, Bangla college slang uses “tan” as a synonym for incomprehensibility. Our state of stunned incomprehension could well have given rise to conspiracy theories like the one so drolly presented by E.V. Rieu in that little-known gem, “Hall and Knight, OR, z+b+x=y+b+z”. ( One quatrain from this masterpiece will suffice to illustrate my point:

'How hard it is', said Mr Knight, 'to hide the fact from youth / That x and y are equal: it is such an obvious truth!' / 'It is', said Mr Hall, 'but if we gave a “b” to each, / We'd put the problem well beyond our little victims' reach.

Utterly delightful.

In all fairness, the liberal arts take more pains to clothe themselves in robes of language rich and strange. In 2000, the University of Monash in Western Australia developed a computer program to generate essays on deconstructionism starting from a few phrases. The web-site categorically states that “The essay (generated) is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator.” I believe they had to take the program offline because their own students started using it for assignments. There was also a report of trouble in the groves of academe when this program fooled one of the foremost experts on deconstructionism.

The rumour may well be true, because going by the experience of my very learned cousin, these learned treatises may actually be rarely read. This cousin was sending out a paper for peer review, and left the computer for a while. Whereupon her sister (also an academic) inserted the words “Bare Naked Ladies” randomly into the text. Sixteen times, once for each expert it was to be mailed to. My unsuspecting cousin mailed off the text and soon received puzzled queries from about 5 people about the strange phrase. What is more revealing, however, is that the other 11 learned reviewers sent back their opinions with no mention of the interpolation!

It’s not just academics. Every kind of expert, whether anglers or astronauts, develop their own special language. It’s a kind of initiation rite. It’s most evident in that very bright and very self-assured breed, the management consultant. For more details on that, go here.

Here endeth ...